City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Siege of Leningrad was one of the greatest atrocities of World War II. It is, in fact, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in world history. It lasted for 872 days and the casualties and losses counted in the millions. The brutal blockade was one of many deep scars that the Great Patriotic War left on the Soviet-Russian soul, and it is the topic of David Benioff’s novel, City of Thieves.  The novel mainly takes place during one week in 1942, when Lev Beniov, a then awkward and self-doubting Jewish teenager, met his future wife, “made his best friend, and killed two Germans.”

Lev dreams of being a great proletarian savior, a “Nevsky for the twentieth century,” but instead he is caught looting a German pilot’s corpse and sentenced to death.  His father, a poet who was revered but read by few, “disappeared” during the Stalin purges of the 1930’s, and when Lev is in his cell he believes that he is about to share his father’s fate. But while awaiting execution, Lev and his soon-to-be friend Kolya, a handsome and charming young man imprisoned for desertion, are summoned by NKVD, a dreaded law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union.  A colonel Grechko has a daughter who is about to get married, and a dozen eggs are needed for the wedding cake. If Lev and Kolya can locate and deliver twelve eggs, the colonel will return their ration cards and let them live.

The request is ridiculous. Food is the stuff of dreams. The city is embraced by severe starvation and people have not seen eggs in months. The pigeons are gone as are the family pets, and citizens of the city make library candy by boiling the binding glue of books, and reforming it into bars wrapped in paper: “The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city’s books were disappearing like the pigeons.”
As the two make their way through the city (nicknamed “Piter” after its traditional name, St. Petersburg), nightmares and gallows humor keep them company, but even in the midst of despair, beauty can show its radiant face.

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